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The state of media subscription business: 4 findings from the FIPP report

Last week international media network FIPP published its quarterly Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot. We’ve distilled the report to four findings that show the current standing of the global digital subscriptions business.

1. Subscription business grows, advertising market shrinks

The general dynamic is hardly a surprise, and last quarter’s trends further show it. The pandemic has accelerated the growth of subscription models, while the advertising business took a hit.

According to the report, apart from industry titans like The New York Times and The Washington Post, “we’ve also seen healthy performances for smaller and more specialised outlets”, including local media.

The global advertising market is projected to shrink by 9% this year (it was predicted to grow 4.3% before the pandemic hit). The decrease is expected to be a bit lower than at the height of the Great Recession in 2008, but it’s also been more rapid, more brutal, and perhaps more lasting.

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2. The New York Times leads the field

The New York Times is a clear outlier in the digital subscription field. The rating of publishers puts in a strong first place with 5.7 million digital subscribers in Q3, with the closest competitor (The Wall Street Journal) trailing by more than 50%.

For the first time in its history The New York Times reported that digital revenue surpassed print revenue. During the pandemic, the company has shown record growth, partly thanks to its groundbreaking reporting.

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3. Other successful cases: Dow Jones, The Athletic, The Atlantic

While The New York Times is the field’s behemoth, the last quarter saw other success stories. Dow Jones, the company that owns The Wall Street Journal and several other publications, has reached $1 billion in digital revenue, and the number of digital subscriptions for the company’s products has risen 28% vs. last year.

The Athletic, a sports media outlet, reached 1 million subscribers, showing 67% growth, even though the sports industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. (According to CNBC, the company is not profitable yet — but the trend is definitely positive).

The Atlantic, in turn, has also shown a phenomenal growth during the pandemic, becoming a go-to publication for coronavirus and American political analysis, among others. According to the FIPP report, the publication reached 500,000 subscribers in an unusually short period of time after a “rocky start.”

4. The magazine industry is behind

While the newspaper industry is raking up subscriptions in a new, digital format, magazines haven’t caught up. As the authors put it, “it remains a source of disappointment that the magazine industry continues to largely ignore digital subscriptions”.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat harder for magazines to go digital than it is for newspapers. On the other hand, the economic downturn creates the need for more innovations — and a faster digital transition for the magazine industry is likely inevitable.

  • Read the full Q3 2020 edition of the Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot here (pdf).
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